As Alice Ward (far left), in The Fighter,
Melissa Leo is the mother of two sons,
played by Mark Wahlberg (above left) and
Christian Bale (second from right).
An act of faith
human being, the better the work. After that
last “cut” is called, I begin to molecularly
restructure into little old me, and the time
between roles is embarrassingly dull and slovenly. What I do when I don’t work would have
most people call me a lazy so-and-so. Until I
find the next gal to play.
For Melissa Leo, acting
is about overcoming fear
By J. Rentilly
BEFORE THIS YEAR’S Oscar ceremonies,
you might not have known Melissa Leo by
name. You may not even know her by face.
That’s only because she’s so good at her job that
she almost literally disappears inside the roles
she plays. An actor’s actor and dedicated crafts-person, Leo has offered powerful, uncompromising, chameleon-like turns in films and
television series such as Homicide: Life on the
21 Grams, HBO’s critically acclaimed
series Treme and David O. Russell’s powerhouse
The Fighter, based on the real-life story of boxer
Mickey Ward, for which Leo won this year’s
Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Leo refers to herself as a myth buster, a
woman over 50 enjoying the best time and
work of her life. As for the massive haul of
hardware she’s earned for playing the swell-
hearted, sucker-punching matriarch Alice
Ward in The Fighter, including an award from
the Screen Actors Guild and a Golden Globe,
Leo’s delighted. “It’s funny, because I’m just
now taking a wood stove out of my apartment
in New York and putting in a fireplace,” she
told The Connection a few weeks before win-
ning her Oscar. “I’m looking for a beautiful
mantel right now, as luck would have it.”
Walking this life all these years, I see that lesson
all over in humanity. To be down in New
Orleans and doing a show like Treme, or to be
in Boston and do a film like The Fighter—these
really are people working to overcome fear to
find love. I can live with that line of work.
CC: With The Fighter, you were surrounded
by tough guys: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale,
David O. Russell. Yet you hold your own.
ML: I’m a scrapper. [Laughs] I’ve won again
and again with this character, even without the
awards. I’ll never forget the first time [the real
Alice Ward] came to the set and saw me all
dolled up, and she pinched my elbow and said
in a thick Boston accent, “You look good.”
CC: How do you approach the characters you
play? The range is vast, the women very different from who you are.
ML: The process is the same, really, for any
character I play, but the chasm to cross for
someone like Alice Ward was, I felt at the time,
so much wider than most. She is very different
from me, but not so different from my grandmother, as it turns out. We [are all] so busy
moving forward that we don’t always remember what we’ve just been through. Alice, like
my grandmother, is a woman from a different
time. That was my connection. I’ve read roles
and known I was right for them. I’ve taken
roles that I’ve felt I was wrong for. But you take
the work and you do the work: What does she
look like? What does she say? What do others
say about her? And then there’s the very private work: What motivates her? You have to
get to that motivation so that you can be righteous about the characters you play.
CC: Your passion for the work is palpable, but
I’m guessing you’ve been able to kick up your
heels a bit this year. Some of these fancy awards
parties must have been a good time, right?
ML: I’m thinking of a dessert tray they
brought out at one of the parties. [Laughs]
The food is amazing. I have one friend who
comes along with me to these parties sometimes, because if there’s a shrimp tray, she
really likes it. [Laughs] We’ve had so much
fun! I’m looking back on this year, and I’m
laughing. I have to laugh. C
J. Rentilly is a Los Angeles–based journalist.
The Costco Connection: You’ve said that love
is about overcoming fear. That’s apparent in
Melissa Leo: Acting is about overcoming fear.
That’s one of the most enriching things about
the life of an actor. You can’t do it unless you
face the scariest corners of the body and soul.
CC: Do you take that work home with you?
ML: Acting is my hallowed religion and faith.
I’m not making a movie to enjoy the teacart or
make friends or second-guess what the next
shot should be. I’m there to portray a human
being. I find the closer I remain with that
The Fighter is available in DVD and Blu-ray
at most Costco locations. Treme is also
available at most Costco locations.